Marxism for Newbies: Dialectical Materialism
“Dialectical Materialism” is the term often used to describe the Marxist worldview — how things work in the universe, according to Marx. The fancy name, and large German words often lead people to assume there is a strange mysticism or magical element to the philosophy, when in reality that could not be further from the truth. There are a few big names who have made contributions to Dialectical Materialism, but it overwhelmingly comes from Karl Marx.
Dialectical Materialism is, simply, the tool-set that Karl Marx and most of his followers use to examine, analyze, and understand the world, and its counterpart ‘historical materialism’ being the same tool-set applied specifically to human history. Now, it is worth noting that this term was not coined by Marx, and you wont find it specifically in Marx’s writings — it instead comes from Karl Kautsky —who was sort of the “President of the Karl Marx fan club” after Marx and Engels pass away. (Edit: It was actually Joseph Dietzgen who coined the term; corrected) You can think of Dialectical Materialism (sometimes referred to as “Diamat” for short) as just a helpful tool for understanding the way that most Marxists try to look at things, but if you do understand it well enough, it can help to provide serious and real insight and explanatory power about the world. Indeed, many scientists and professionals do so already, often unaware that their ‘little mental trick’ or ‘hidden knowledge’ is actually just a part of a larger and well established philosophy. But what exactly does this worldview entail, and what does does ‘dialectics’ even mean?
Dialectics is a way of understanding concepts in the world as always being in a state of change and interaction — things are never just static and neutral, but always, constantly interacting and moving. But also understanding that motion in one place, like air pushed through a vent, moves other things with it. The world is comprised of interacting systems, and however you break things down you can always look at parts of the world as being part of a larger system, and having smaller systems contained within them as well. Within any of these systems are, what we (Marxists and Hegelians) call, contradictions (these, generally, are not taken to be the same thing as contradictions in analytic philosophy, so avoid that misunderstanding for now), which are two mutually opposed forces which also require one another to exist, and the struggle between them is what drives the larger system forward.
A (perhaps a touch oversimplified) way to think about it is like an equation in mathematics. At some point, you have a concept — or and idea — in your head. Over some amount of time, that idea might change or warp or become different than what it began as (think of all the Libertarians whose ‘small government minarchism’ has become rampaging militaristic fascism!). We can look at the original idea, and call that Idea-1, and then look at the later idea, let’s name it Idea-2, and then see how the idea changed or transformed from the first idea to the second. It is not always a linear transformation, as ideas and influences can pull back and forth, but at the end you have a change in state (a delta, for you math nerds), so you can think of the delta-idea (the change in the state of the idea) as the dialectic.
So, as a particularly simple example, if the idea we were examining through dialectics was temperature, then one of the contradictions that helps us better understand temperature would be the contradiction between hot and cold. If the idea was war, then we might examine it as a series of advances and retreats to better grasp what happened. Things are not things-in-themselves, they exist as a part of something else, too.
The reason we understand things as contradictions comes from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, one of the most famous philosophers of all time, and one of the major influences on Karl Marx. Although they never met, Hegel ended up being the largest influence upon Marx, despite Marx ultimately overturning all of Hegel’s life’s work. For Hegel, he says that we don’t really understand how to qualify information or ideas on their own, without other information or ideas to contrast them against. To go back to a previous example, you don’t really understand the idea of “cold” unless you have some conception of “hot” (or at least “something that isn’t cold” to contrast “hot” against). Trying to understand an idea on it’s own, in isolation, offers you very little information, because you don’t understand what you are analyzing — what you are looking for. Only when you put two ideas against one another, do you see the differences between them.
So, says Hegel, if you want to understand a larger idea (for example, the idea of temperature), then you need to understand the concepts of “hot” and “cold” and their relationship (or more specifically, their contradiction), in order to properly grasp the idea of temperature. So in this way, contradiction is sort of a unity of opposites — two things that oppose and conflict with one another, but also require one another in order to exist, at least until a substantial change in their relationship occurs that fundamentally alters both.
The relationship between two differing, mutually exclusive, contradictory ideas is what ultimately defines each of them, and from understanding this conflict/struggle between these contradicting ideas, we can reach a higher, better state of understanding the entire system as a whole (the world). But because these ideas are always influencing each other, and creating change upon one another, we can’t separate them — we always have to understand them as moving pieces in a larger whole. On some occasion, you might hear the phrase “Undialectical!,” shouted by an angry Marxist (it’s a recent meme, you wont find it in old theory). While this phrase is perplexing to outsiders, and often used incorrectly (or ironically) by insiders, the proper use of the phrase is in describing someone’s ideas which forget that the world is in motion, too. They envisioned one change, but forgot that all the things that idea is connected to also change with it and around it. If you are thinking “what, like the Butterfly Effect?,” then you are in the right ballpark.
An important item to remember about both Hegel and Marx is the era that they come out of — the world, too, was changing, leaving feudalism behind and fully entering the capitalist mode of production, complete with the world changing industrial revolution taking place. A big part of both of their philosophies was interpreting and understanding and explaining this change going on around them. Where Hegel was very religious, and politically sort of a reformer (moderate incremental change through policy), Marx, on the other hand, was a staunch atheist and political revolutionary (smash the old system and build a new one).
A lot of the amateur “Introduction to Hegel” videos and essays available online spend far too much time and effort on “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.” People like to reference this, because it takes one of the most difficult to read and understand philosophers in history, and puts his ideas into a nice comprehensible, easy-to-follow little equation. The issue, however, is that people generally don’t understand that these are merely descriptions and not the process itself — sort of like how people say E=mc² is Einstein’s theory of relativity, when it is really just a small key component of the theory, and they are missing the much larger picture by focusing on that. So put a pin in thesis-antithesis-synthesis for today, and cut right to what Hegel believed was most important: ideas.
Perhaps the biggest discussion in philosophy at the time was about the relationship between “thinking” and “being” — the conceptualizations that we have in our minds versus the ways in which we see those things play out in the physical world. For Hegel, the nexus, or like the centerpiece of this relationship between thinking and being was “the IDEA.” What are ideas (or thoughts), and where do they come from? Surely they are not just random occurrences, disconnected from the rest of existence (your ideas about things do not come from nowhere). But they are not a tangible thing in the physical world — you cannot pick up or measure or weigh a thought or an idea — yet you do seem to be able to use them to make changes upon the world.
Ideas are special, for Hegel, because they are this abstract, intangible thing in our minds — but with the right idea, humans can shape the physical world around them. If you are going to chime in with neuroscience here, yes, that’s correct, and certainly we can say that ideas are really, actually, just neurons firing in our brains — but nonetheless, that is not the way, that’s not HOW, we understand or interpret or conceive of ideas when they enter our minds. As an example, you don’t say “Oh, neurons 1132, 4490, and 155794 just fired off therefore I want pizza.” You just think about the idea of pizza, and the idea of eating it. And for Hegel, ideas are special, because these ideas come into our mind, and then we take these ideas and we go and project them out of our minds, and they impact upon the physical world (hereafter referred to as The Material World, for reasons explained shortly), changing it!
As an example, if you were an architect, you might get the conception (the idea) in your head for a house. But then you can go and physically “project” that house out onto the real physical world, (not by some magical projection, but by physically constructing the house of real physical matter) and then the once intangible idea that existed only in your mind has become something that is now physical and tangible and material — something that we can go inside.
And we can have ideas about all sorts of different things (not just objects, but actions or systems or hierarchical structures too), and those ideas can be projected out onto the world in all sorts of ways. This is why are ideas important and special to Hegel — ideas are the source/the essence of existence! So says Hegel, if you truly understand the idea about the thing in your mind, then you truly understand that thing as it exists in the world. And for Hegel, when you go out and project an idea out onto the world, you have sort of imbued the tangible thing in the world with the idea of that thing. So that house the architect built contains within it, in essence, the original idea of that house. But the idea of the thing is actually, really (says Hegel) the thing in it’s purest form, and the thing as physically exists out in the material world is sort of an imperfect replica of that idea. It will always be a little bit less perfect than the ideal version of that thing, because of the real world limitations or imperfections of the material.
But the ideas come first, and ideas are what is most important, claims Hegel. This was the view of a philosophical school of thought known as “idealism.” As many of the thinkers of the time were religious, God was often, too, interpreted to be an intangible idea. God was not a physical thing that had mass and took up space, but an intangible thing beyond the physical, material realm. And from that idea, God, comes the physical, material world, as a manifestation from God, of an idea about the world. This is an enormous condensing of Hegel’s philosophy here, but ultimately ideas originate from God. These ideas come into our minds, and then we go and project them out onto the world. We can create a label for Hegel’s philosophy, and call it: “Dialectical Idealism.”
Now the dialectical part of dialectical idealism comes from realizing that, as mentioned earlier, the ideas are in motion. The ideas in your head are constantly interacting and spurring new ideas. So you can think of dialectical idealism as ideas in motion.
One of the biggest philosophical debates raging on through this era was to answer the question: “what is the fundamental substance of the universe?” Two main schools of thought emerged to answer this question — idealists who say the intangible world, or more specifically ideas come first, and the physical, material world emerges out of those ideas (some idealists include: Hegel, Zeller, or Fichte) versus the materialists — who say that, no, it is actually physical matter which comes first, and ideas emerge much later, from out of physical processes of living things which are ultimately, themselves, comprised of matter (some materialists include Feuerbach, Strauss, or Marx).
Now the term materialist sometimes has a different connotation today, where it has come to mean an obsession with vapid consumerism, or hedonism — seeking material pleasures. Don’t let that confuse you. In philosophy, materialists took the name because they concluded that “matter” was the fundamental substance of the universe. Today, with quantum theory and maybe string theory (which didn’t really exist in the 19th century) we now realize that matter can be broken down further (elementary particles and so on), but the idea that the universe is composed of physical, tangible things that can be studied and measured empirically is still the basis for materialism.
So when you see “the material world” what that refers to is the real, physical world which we inhabit. When you talk about the ideal world, in the materialist worldview, you are talking about the intangible world— the one that exists in conceptualizations or thoughts or forms — as being merely a product (perhaps byproduct) of the material world and its physical processes. For the modern materialist, the universe is fundamentally made of — something empirical that we can observe and measure; and thus far our best understanding is called the standard model, currently consisting of: the elementary particles which comprise atoms, that then in numbers create molecules, which, if sufficiently organized, may eventually create DNA, which can then replicate cells, which form tissue, forming an organism, which then consumes, evolves and reproduces, and it might eventually evolve a brain, which then might begin to form ideas. Ideas are still interesting, certainly, to materialists, but they are only a tiny subset of events existing in the universe, rather than the end-all-be-all of existence for the idealist.
With regards to ideas — from the perspective of materialists, now — these are neurons firing in the brain, yes, but again you don’t experience them, or discuss them, or develop them in that manner. That human comprehension of ideas is intangible, for the materialists as well, and we can again call those conceptions in the mind, the “world” of ideas. But be aware that it is a much more limited “world” of ideas for the materialist than the idealist. If the mind (the physical brain) is damaged or shuts down, the ideas and “world” of ideas for that person are lost too. Ideas are not things that you can measure empirically or grasp with our physical senses, but they are still important because of how they exist in relation to each other, interact with each other and with the world, and how they are ‘connected’ (again this is dialectics).
So “what is the fundamental substance of the universe?”— from the idealists: “Ideas are the fundamental substance of the universe,” and from the materialists: “Matter is the fundamental substance of the universe.” (hence the name, materialists — everything is made up of material). So when you are talking about things in Hegelian philosophy you have to be careful to explain where that thing exists — in the material world or in the ideal world. Or more simply, the real, physical, tangible world (where atoms and trees and Montreal and go-carts, etc exist) and the conceptual world (the “world” where ideas and perceptions and mental constructs — like the house you are planning to build, or the new organizational structure for an institution that you are hoping for — exist). So more simply:
Materialism — it is the material world that begets the immaterial world
Idealism — it is the immaterial world that begets the material world
So back to the idealists, like Hegel, the idea of things comes into existence first, and the material world then emerges and develops out of those intangible ideas. As mentioned, God, as understood by Hegel, is not a physical thing in the world that takes up space or has mass or lives in an area that you can travel to by spacecraft, God is an intangible idea, and the one that exists prior to all the others. It’s God that creates the world first as an idea, and then transforms it into material — a physical form that physically does occupy space and has physical, observable properties. Idealists argue that without the ideal world, the material world would not exist, and that the real, fundamental world, is the world of ideas, and if you were looking for God you would find him there — not here in the imperfect material world.
By contrast, materialists argue that, no, it was actually the material which came first — the big bang, atoms and molecules and so on until you get to life — which is still composed of those physical, material substances. And from these early stages of life, physical processes develop further, forming into more and more complicated organs, until eventually some life forms start to develop brains — and from some physical, tangible, processes going on inside our brains emerges the ideal world — that is where the world of ideas comes from — the world of our perceptions and conceptions and visualizations and imagination, which all exists only inside our heads as a way of perceiving, conceiving and understanding the more complex functions going on around us in the (physical) material world.
To illustrate the difference between materialists and idealists, imagine if all the life in the universe (think a double Thanos snap) were to be killed off in an instant! Well, materialists would argue that the ideal world might no longer exist (if it ever really did at all), but all the matter and physical stuff would just keep on ticking away as an essentially mechanical process. Maybe the atoms would arrange just right again, and life would evolve once more, and from that the ideal world could make a triumphant return! But it is the matter — the physical stuff, that is dominant and fundamental and most important.
Conversely, the idealists argue that if there is no one to hear the tree fall in the middle of the forest, then it would fall silent. That is to say, (in the event of a double Thanos snap) if all the life in the universe was ended, the physical, material world, for the idealists, would become (mostly) irrelevant, as all the action would be going down in the intangible, ideal world, still ticking along, undaunted.
There are other philosophical positions here that we just don’t have time to discuss, like dualists or pluralists — who argue that ideal and material world exist simultaneously and separately, and our souls are like the nexus that connect mind and body, and hence the two different worlds, but materialists like Marx will criticize these positions the same way that they criticize idealism, and usually consider these alternative positions to ultimately, be idealism. As is likely obvious by now, idealists were usually (although not always, but most of the time) religious, whereas materialists were usually (not always, but most of the time) atheists.
There’s not that much to discuss when talking about Marx’s atheism — it isn’t all that different from any of the other atheist discussions you can see in the world around you today. The shorthand version is that materialism is a disbelief in magic, and rejects any magical explanations, including those emanating from God or other deity. Magical or supernatural explanations are not valid accounting of the world and it’s events, say the materialists and only explanations that ultimately stem from the material have weight.
The main influence on Marx’s atheism was another student of Hegel — Ludwig Feuerbach. Thing about Feuerbach is that he was a materialist, but he was “metaphysical materialist” — he viewed the material world as being static, something that you examine in isolation, and could only be changed through external additions and subtractions. Feuerbach envisioned a universe made of matter, but he failed to recognize that all of the parts and pieces of the universe are always in motion. Marx developed a different way of understanding the material world — taking that concept of “dialectics” from Hegel, and developing the understanding of the world that would later be dubbed “dialectical materialism.” Marx viewed that the material world was dynamic! — not static or rigid, but always in flux — that it to say it was always constantly changing, and always evolving, and so too were all the things and systems contained within.
So remember, with dialectical idealism, Hegel argues that ideas emerge out of a spiritual, intangible world — ideas, essentially, come from God. They transcend the barriers of this intangible, ideal realm, manifest in our minds, which then allows us to project that idea out onto the world, allowing us to create an imperfect replica of that idea which then exists out in the material world. It makes you feel a little bit special, because it shows us exactly where humans and our consciousness are in a sort of communication with the divine, and how we manifest an ideal world out onto the flawed material world. The thing in the world, for Hegel, is the imperfect recreation of an idea, and we can only hope to bring it closer and closer to that idealized state that exists in our minds — but, as already discussed, the idea will always be the purest and most perfect form of that thing.
But Marx shakes his head “no!” This is important, as you can finally start to understand why Marxism is not an idealist philosophy. Those that accuse Marx and Marxists of envisioning an ideal world and wishing to create it (often to terrible consequence, these incorrect hecklers claim) and that their “lofty idealism” is doomed to failure — these statements, are always made in ignorance. Marxists reject this notion that ideas are the source, and reject that notion the world is a product of the idea. Quite so, it is entirely backwards — the other way around. Marxists are materialists, not utopians — and it is from the material that Marxists seek to bring about change upon the world. For you see, the problem that Marx found with Hegel was that all of Hegel’s ideas were grounded in abstract thought, and that this was the reason why all of Hegel’s ideas were failing to bring about change in the real, material world.
Now remember that Marx is a materialist, and materialists see that the real, material world comes first and our ideas develop out of that. So this is where Marx “flips Hegel on his head” (in what is basically the philosophy equivalent of Undertaker throwing Mankind off the Hell in a Cell). Marx recognized that change in material conditions causes change in ideas; the exact opposite of Hegel’s earlier formulation! Marx says “no” to Dialectical Idealism — we do not get our ideas from God and then project them out onto the world. We get our ideas from the world. Marx eliminates the spiritual realm (as it exists for idealists) and folds the dialectic back onto itself. We project ideas onto the world, yes, but all of our ideas come from the world in the first place. Not God, but the world itself is the origins of our ideas. The ideas in our minds are not a handoff from God, it’s a system, a process, originating from and occurring entirely within the material world. And it is one that constantly feeds back into itself, constantly changing, constantly developing, constantly growing and evolving with each new idea taken in, and each new idea projected back out onto the world. Matter in motion.
For Hegel, the idea was the “purest” true essence of the thing, and the way it existed in the world was just an imperfect replica. But for Marx, it is the exact opposite — the thing in the world is all that exists, and that is the true, real thing. All of the flaws and imperfections are not degradations of the original idea, but rather the idea is wishful thinking upon the material thing that exists in the world. Of course it will always be more perfect, because is never needs to materially exist!
But it’s our material conditions that dictate our ideas, and then we can use our ideas to influence and change our material conditions. Indeed, it is a back and forth cycle, but it is not circular, because it is always changing course and evolving each time it goes back and forth from matter to idea and back to the matter. If one were to assign this relationship a “shape,” it would be a spiral, not a circle. And these new changes in our material conditions from our actions are what determines our new ideas about the world. Which we then use to influence the material conditions of the world even more, provided that we understand the larger system that we are in — and that we are merely a part of an ongoing process that is constantly changing and developing and evolving. This also ties into another important Marxist concept that well call “overdetermination,” but that’s a topic for another time.
So a primitive human, for example, didn’t get the idea to make a hammer from God injecting the idea of a hammer into his mind. The primitive human saw something in the world that developed his idea — seeing that one object could be used to smash another — and the idea of creating a hammer slowly, through multiple “cycles” of change observed in the world creating change in ideas, eventually developed out of the world. This idea of one object being used to break another was, at some point, projected back from their experience out onto the world into something tangible and physical that can be used and even reproduced. And with that hammer, they were able to further change their material conditions in new ways, allowing them to develop even more new ideas about the world.
So how does one learn about the world? Simple, by looking at it. By observing it, investigating it, interacting with it, and observing the changes upon it. You might have heard the strange cryptic phrase uttered by the most fervent Marxists, “the eternal science of Marxism-Leninism.” But now you can begin to see how and why this claim is actually upheld by Marxists as correctly being science. Indeed, this was exactly how most of the world understood science — what science is, and is about (what am I doing if I am “doing science?” — right up until the Soviet Union had firmly established itself. At that point, the West was desperately seeking a way to separate science from Marx, and turned to Karl Popper’s Falsifiability to provide an (insufficient) alternative, free of all that icky Marxism.
So how do we perceive the world, how can we understand the world? With our senses. With empirical study, taken from knowledge and understanding gained by looking at, observing, and investigating the world. And then how does one change the world? Simple — by acting upon it!
This is one the most beloved things about Marx — he stated that it is not the philosopher’s job to simply look at the world and analyze what is going on. This had been the mistake of all the previous philosophers — that they sat on the sidelines, watching the “game” to try to analyze how it is played. But Marx says that is not the true role of the philosopher. The philosopher must take the field and change the score! It is the role of the philosopher to act upon the world and to change it! This is so simple and so easy to say on the surface, yet this notion deep and profound and powerful when understood and explored.
Now remember what dialectics meant for Hegel, that ideas are always changing and evolving. Well, for Marx, he goes ahead and takes the entire Hegelian structure — the entire “framework” of existence that Hegel spent his life assembling, discards all of the abstract notions about ideas and God, and lays the exact same framework down on upon the real, material world. Dialectics retains its emphasis on processes and relations — understanding that these components of the world are parts of larger material systems that are always changing. But it is not ideas in motion, but rather for Marx, is it matter in motion. In other words, not only is the world made up of matter, but that matter is moving and colliding and interacting with all the other matter in complex structures and processes, happening all around us, all the time. This motion is guided by those same internal contradictions, except that they are not simply contradictions of ideas, but real, tangible contradictions in the world. The forces of matter push and pull against each other, sometimes eliciting strange or interesting reactions.
Remember that a contradiction is a “unity of opposites”, or mutually antagonistic forces that drive development, yet also together comprise a larger whole. So for Marx, the biggest contradiction in all the world, that comprised the larger idea of human society, was the contradiction of classes in society — the contradiction between those that rule and those who are ruled over. Marx saw the struggle between those two groups as the force that drives history forward. Indeed, when you take this worldview of dialectical materialism and then apply it to human history, we Marxists call that ‘historical materialism,’ which is where you arrive at the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, and class warfare — but this is a topic for another time.
And like for Hegel, the same is true for Marx: ideas do not simply exist on their own, but so too, does the material never simply exist on it’s own. Think of the white room in The Matrix, where Neo instantly summons a vast arsenal of weapons — this notion would be anti-Marxist because in the real world, for a weapon to exist, it does not simply appear, but must be manufactured in factories, assembled from materials, which were mined from the Earth, formed from exploding stars eons ago — and all of those components must be a part of the ‘equation,’ the dialectic, of that gun — you don’t get to separate the gun, nor the idea of the gun, from how it actually exists in the world. The world and the matter are always interacting with other ideas and other material that exist in the world.
So once more in brief — Dialectical Materialism — the philosophy held by Marxists, which they use to analyze the world. The Materialism part means that Marxist worldview explanations must ultimately come out of the real, physical material world — not caused by magical or supernatural or intangible forces. The Dialectical part means that when we examine the world, we are trying to examine it as a system or as part of a larger system, one that is always in motion and always changing, never existing in static isolation. When you make changes to one system (or part of that system), it will also result in change to all the other systems that it interacts with. You don’t get to envision one change in the world and then have all the other things related to it in the world stay the same.
So to you, emerging philosopher, do not sit idly by and read this, wishing for change upon the world. Do not waste your time and efforts with idealism, hoping that you can change the ideas of the world in order to bring about change upon the world — as this notion is exactly backwards! Instead, the role of the Marxist is to take action upon the world, and to change the material world, and by making the changes there, so too, will the ideas of humanity change with it!